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The contested convergence of precarity and immaterial labour

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
Date created
Labour has tended to be a relatively neglected subject in critical scholarship on communication and culture. One pathway for working against this tendency is a current of analysis and activism confronting the problematic of precarity. Circulated at the start of the 21st century by autonomous activists in Europe, the concept of precarity is defined in this dissertation as experiential, financial, and social insecurity exacerbated by the flexibilization of employment under conditions of post-Fordism (e.g., contract-based employment, freelance work, self-employment). Precarity is, I contend, a valuable conceptual tool for struggling over the meaning of contemporary transformations in the world of work. It illuminates an underside that hegemonic discourses on media, information technology, and cultural work—such as those surrounding free agency, the creative economy, the flat world, and the creative class—have been criticized for downplaying. Historical political economic context is provided through a discussion of the uneven transition from Fordist to post-Fordist capitalism. Points of departure for the inquiry are drawn from streams of labour analysis within the political economy of communication and autonomist Marxism. The dissertation is structured in two main parts. The first section profiles select aspects of the multiform precarious immaterial workforce animating industries associated with the vaunted creative economy. It introduces a schema of precarious labour personas—the autonomous worker, the precog, and the cybertariat—to explore some of the manifold mechanisms and quotidian manifestations of precarization. The second part argues that although the flexibilization of labour since the 1970s was an attempt by capital to decompose the counter-power of segments of the working class, the spread of precarious working conditions in the post-Fordist core has not entirely exhausted dissent. Through creative public protest, experimental workers’ organizations, and policy proposals, working people within and beyond immaterial production milieus have begun to collectively respond to precarity. I argue that precarity and cognate terms are not only linguistic devices that workers themselves are using to name a qualitative feature of their labour and life conditions. These terms also signal a promising laboratory of labour solidarity, organization, and imagination within and against flexploitation.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Zhao, Yuezhi
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